Routine Immunization during COVID-19: Debunking myths and what parents need to know
World Immunization Week is celebrated every year in the last week of April and it is a reminder for all of us that vaccines are the only tool to save lives from preventable diseases
By Prasanta Dash
Vaccines are amongst the greatest advances of modern medicine. Evidence suggest that childhood immunization has significantly reduced childhood morbidity and mortality due to vaccine preventable diseases thus saving millions of lives.
But the COVID-19 pandemic is a devastating reminder of the chaos caused by diseases we cannot prevent. It is because of COVID vaccines, that we now have a way of ending this pandemic and to rebuild our lives. No child should die from preventable diseases and we need to keep making efforts until this is the reality.
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With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic since last year, resources have been used to respond to the emergency brought on by the pandemic, to ensure that everyone has masks, sanitisers, soaps and access to vaccines.
Hence, the progress in the immunization against vaccine preventable childhood diseases have been disrupted.
According to WHO, approximately 80 million children under the age of one are potentially at risk for developing a vaccine-preventable illness. This is because they are living in countries where routine immunization services have been disrupted by the pandemic. Our national immunization program covers over 26 million children and 29 million pregnant women, which makes it one of the largest in the world. India launched Mission Indradhanush in 2014 to achieve full immunization for 90% of children through community mobilization, door-to-door campaigns, and monitoring events.
But a disturbance in these programmes lead to grave outcomes in the health of the children, the unborn child and pregnant mothers. The National Health Mission reported that in March 2020 alone, at least 100,000 children missed their BCG doses and about 200,000 children missed their pentavalent (diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, hepatitis B and Hemophilus influenzae type b) vaccines.
Having said that, the Government of Jharkhand and UNICEF has taken several measures to ensure the containment of the virus and reinforce the capacity of the health system to manage immediate service resumption of routine immunization which is key to reducing vaccine-preventable diseases.
All the service providers were trained on how to provide services with COVID- 19 protocols in place and many health workers in health facilities were provided psychosocial counselling so that they are able to provide services without any fear. UNICEF also monitored the service resumption on ground and provided feedback to state and district for corrective actions.
State also launched a special immunization drive for children of migrant workers which were returning in the state from other parts of the country and also launched two rounds of Intensified Mission Indradhanush 3.0 in 11 districts which had large proportion of partially or un immunized children due to any reason.
Further, there is a fear and uncertainty in the minds of parents brought on by COVID-19 about whether to go to the hospital for routine immunizations for their children during the pandemic or not. Myths and misinformation floating about are adding fuel to the fire putting young lives at risk.
I want to tell you that routine immunization is a must for your child and the COVID-19 outbreak is a reminder of how valuable vaccines are. It shows us that when there is a vaccine available for a disease, we should keep our children and ourselves up to date with that vaccination. Without the protection of vaccines, diseases can spread quickly and with terrible consequences. For example, measles and other diseases remain a constant risk. We are so fortunate to have the protection of vaccines against these diseases.
It is important that children and babies keep their vaccinations up to date because they protect them from serious diseases. It means that when your children can return to interacting with other children, they will have protection from some other diseases too.
If you are unsure of whether or not your immunization service is still running as usual, please check with your health care provider. Because the COVID-19 situation is changing every day, you might find your health care providers will be adjusting their way of providing care as things change. If you cannot get to a vaccination centre when your child’s next vaccinations are due, make a note somewhere to try again.
Much has also been spoken and written about COVID-19 Appropriate Behaviour, but apart from regular hand washing, physical distancing and maintaining hygiene practices, parents should take extra care to protect infants from infection. Breastfeed your baby with safety precautions. There is currently no evidence that breastmilk can transmit the virus, but you should take the usual hygiene and respiratory protection (while breastfeeding as well as at other times) to avoid respiratory transmission.
Use antibacterial wipes if available to wipe down countertops and diaper- changing surfaces once a day. Try to ensure young children have the same caregivers to reduce the number of people they come into contact with. Those caregivers should be encouraged to wash their hands regularly, avoid sharing things that go in mouths such as cups and stay away if they feel at all sick.
As a parent, I know the anxiousness that can creep in during a child’s vaccination. But the most important thing is for the parents themselves to be calm, because if the parent is anxious that gets translated to the child. Lastly, remember that it is critical that children get all age appropriate vaccines by their first birthday because that’s when they’re most vulnerable to the diseases. If you provide the vaccine early on, the child’s immune system is ready and then when they encounter those diseases, they’re able to fight.
Remember that vaccines save lives.
The author is the Chief of Field Office for UNICEF Jharkhand
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